Wednesday, March 21, 2007 | Carol Lam’s fate was sealed in April 2006.
The ammunition that helped bring down San Diego’s former U.S. attorney followed in the weeks and months after. With congressional attention focused on Lam’s record prosecuting smugglers who traffic immigrants into the United States, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales wanted Lam “on a very short leash,” wrote Kyle Sampson, Gonzales’ former chief of staff, on June 1.
Behind Lam’s Ouster
If Lam balked or didn’t deliver smuggling prosecutions in 45 days, Sampson wrote to two top Justice Department officials, “remove her.”
The story of Lam’s ouster lies amidst some 3,000 pages of internal e-mails, memos, talking points and other documents released Monday and Tuesday by the Justice Department. They are the narrative to the political scandal that has now erupted nationwide — tracing it from its inception through its execution — and include e-mails between Lam and her superiors.
The documents offer a window not only into Lam’s performance, but also a view of the Justice Department’s perceptions of her prosecutorial choices. At the same time, the internal records peel back the curtain on the smoky Beltway backroom, where images are carefully managed and where the public hears pre-crafted responses, not frank answers.
The internal communications document the first criticism against Lam in April 2004 by a group of 14 Southern California congressmen — including Randy “Duke” Cunningham, a man she’d later put behind bars — who were concerned that she was not prosecuting immigrant smuggling cases.
The documents indicate that Lam was not dismissed because of her pursuit of Cunningham and other high-profile corruption cases, instead pointing to her record on immigration prosecution.
Concerns about U.S.-Mexico border smugglers resurfaced in April 2006, when a local congressman questioned Gonzales about the issue. U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Vista, indicated that he was still concerned about smugglers repeatedly being caught in the United States and released back into Mexico — only to be caught again. Gonzales’ staff had prepared talking points in case Issa asked him about the “catch-and-release” policy during a public hearing.
Two weeks after the issue resurfaced — before the media seized on it — Gonzales was considering Lam’s ouster.
Sampson, who resigned earlier this month in the wake of the scandal, alerted the White House of the ouster plan on April 14, 2006. Lam was one of several attorneys being targeted, according to Sampson’s heavily redacted e-mail.
“DOJ recommends that the White House consider removing and replacing the following U.S. Attorneys upon the expiration of their 4-year terms,” Sampson wrote. Three non-redacted names followed. All — including Lam — are now gone.
A month later, Issa launched a public offensive against Lam. Issa’s attack first surfaced in an Associated Press story May 18. Issa’s office released an internal Border Patrol report that said Lam’s office wasn’t prosecuting coyotes — people who smuggle immigrants for a fee. The president of the Border Patrol’s union told the AP that his agents were “demoralized” by the lack of prosecution.
Lam defended her record, saying the most dangerous offenders were her highest priority. About half of her 110 attorneys were working on border cases, she said.
The story exploded. It caught the eye of then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn, according to an e-mail from Frist’s chief counsel to a senior Justice Department official. The news was passed up the department’s chain of command. Issa appeared on CNN four days later decrying Lam’s prosecutorial priorities.
Lam and her Washington counterparts went on the defensive to determine how to rebut the report that Issa’s office leaked.
In memos and e-mails, Lam said it was an unauthorized, outdated report that had been “substantially altered” and that most comments in it “are editorial comments inserted by an unidentified individual.” In an urgent cable to Gonzales and his deputy, Lam appeared hopeful that her refutation would grab the press’s attention.
“In light of previous media interest in this issue,” she wrote, “there is a possibility that the disclosure that the report is not genuine could generate substantial media interest.”
As the Issa assault boiled — reporters from the North County Times to CNN’s Lou Dobbs were now covering it — Lam sent a one-line e-mail to Ronald Tenpas, a Justice Department attorney based in Washington.
“For what it’s worth,” she wrote, “I have never met Congressman Issa.”
She had even misspelled the Vista Republican’s first name in her cable to Gonzales, calling him “Darryl.”
A day after Issa’s criticism was broadcast on CNN, senior Justice Department officials discussed Lam and her concerns. Tenpas relayed his conversation with Lam to several colleagues.
“In her view, although the unrebutted criticism is making the Department look bad, she has been sitting quiet,” Tenpas wrote. “She is willing to change course if folks think that would be beneficial. … She will do anything else the [attorney general] would wish, including continuing to stand silent despite the personal criticism.”
By early June, Gonzales wanted to have a “heart-to-heart” with Lam to remind her about the “urgent need to improve immigration enforcement in SD,” wrote Sampson, Gonzales’ former chief of staff.
The Justice Department, Gonzales believed, need to quickly create “some deliverables on immigration enforcement, and in the long-term, insulate the Department from criticism by improving our numbers,” Sampson wrote to two top Justice Department officials.
Five days later, two of the Justice Department’s top officials were still discussing whether Lam should be forced out. William Mercer, the No. 3 official, laid out four options. Three included getting rid of Lam.
In a heavily redacted e-mail to Paul McNulty, the Justice Department’s second-in-command, Mercer wrote: “What, if anything, should be done in [San Diego] to address concerns about inadequate immigration enforcement numbers. The range of options includes: replace Carol, replace Carol only if she fails to make demonstrable improvements … add [assistant U.S. attorneys] … immediately after Carol’s successor is named.”
A month later, Lam did not appear to be making progress. In Washington, Mercer harshly criticized her in an e-mail. When a colleague joked that he was sad to see Mercer being promoted to third-in-command at the department, Mercer wondered if his colleague was actually sad because: “Carol Lam can’t meet a deadline or that you’ll need to interact with her in the coming weeks or that she won’t just say, ‘O.K. You got me. You’re right, I’ve ignored national priorities and obvious local needs. Shoot, my production is more hideous than I realized.’”
Lam met with Issa in August to discuss his concerns. The meeting appeared productive, and Justice Department attorneys in Washington were pleased. Lam made her priorities clear, and Issa didn’t want any follow-up information.
“It was fine (at least I think it was,)” Lam wrote in an e-mail to Rebecca Seidel, a Justice Department attorney. “The tone was civil and at times even friendly. … Essentially I must make a choice — prosecute the coyotes who are smuggling but not endangering anyone, or the rapists and murderers who are coming back to rape and murder again.”
But as the summer slipped into autumn, Gonzales’ chief of staff began developing a plan to push out several attorneys, including Lam. The step-by-step blueprint outlined what was to eventually happen Dec. 7.
First step: The White House calls lead Republican politicians in the states of the attorneys being forced out. The documents do not say who that contact was in California.
Second step: A senior Justice Department official calls Lam and the other attorneys being forced out and breaks the news. The official already had talking points prepared in case an attorney protested.
While some other attorneys quickly resigned, Lam kept her firing a secret for more than a month, requesting a delay in her last day. The San Diego Union-Tribune scooped Lam, reporting Jan. 12 that she had been asked to resign.
The Department of Justice’s public affairs office caught the Union-Tribune story and sent it up the chain of command. At 5 p.m. that day, McNulty, the deputy attorney general, fired off a quick e-mail from his BlackBerry to his chief of staff after being sent the news story.
“Wow,” he said. “Has she been called yet?”
“We are going to see if she announces by the Monday deadline,” came the response.
Lam waited until Jan. 16. She signed a bland form letter that Justice Department officials had given her. It began:
“Dear Mr. President: I am hereby submitting my resignation as United States Attorney.”